I can’t think of a restaurant that’s done a better job of blocking the outside from the in. Shut Fiamma’s (curtained) front door behind you and, mercifully, the suburban mall view of parked cars vanishes. You find yourself in a cosy little oasis with nary a crack in the curtain to slap you back to reality.
A wall of old brick brings a long-established look to this Barrhaven restaurant. The room is fetchingly cluttered – a collection of spooky Mardi Gras masks, a domino of wine bottles and crates, ornate mirrors, many framed prints. There’s an old Vespa mounted on a high shelf on the brick wall. There’s a bar, curved, dark and busy. The lighting is soft and fun. A pizza oven in the back corner acts as fireplace, contributing a focal glow.
You may have noticed as you pulled in, that the parked cars were many in number. Fiamma is wildly popular. I have yet to find a quiet night. ‘Do you have a reservation?’ has been the greeting at my every visit.
Fiamma is a restaurant I want to like for more than its good looks; Barrhaven hasn’t much in the way of neighbourhood gems. But there are weaknesses that are hard to overlook. The service is one. The pacing of three meals has been uneven. Sometimes bread is remembered, sometimes not (and when remembered sometimes arrives burnt). One friend sent his ‘undrinkable’ martini back, electing to order a beer instead. (Fiamma needs a proper bartender; it’s too taxing on servers to be mixing drinks while they wait tables.) Answers to questions about the menu are struggled over.
Fiamma also needs a pizza cook to staff the dining room kiln. Despite the menu’s promise that its thin crust pizzas have a ‘natural smoky flavour’ from its wood-burning stove (it’s in fact, a gas burning stove) I have yet to taste a pizza from wood fuelled flames. Indeed, other than warming bread and the room, the pizza oven does not seem to be used, which makes Fiamma’s pizzas pretty ordinary.
There are some successes, though. I really like the house salad. Green olives, well roasted red peppers, chunks of potato, tomato, herbs and a sharp, mustardy vinaigrette. Twelve dollars may seem a lot for a potato salad, but the portion is vast, and you could make a meal of it. The fried zucchini is great bar-food. The mushrooms Fiamma in a Gorgonzola sauce are rich and good, and there are masses of them. And I’ve had a nice plate of veal Saltimbocca, the pounded, tender meat napped with prosciutto, the sauce tasting of drippings, wine, sage and butter, and the inevitable saltiness of the dish kept pleasantly in check. Nice roast potatoes and decent vegetables round out the plate.
But I’ve also had some disappointments. The meat of the carpaccio is fairly tasteless, the oil anointment missing and the price ($17) high enough to elevate the wince factor. A plate of Linguine Pescatore (a $21 lunch plate) included waterlogged scallops, dull shrimp and mussels past their prime, which infected the whole dish with a nasty scent. That lunch linguine was preceded with a dull minestrone soup, the vegetables firm enough, but the broth weak, the canned tomatoes left in large, unwieldy chunks and the greying broccoli a problem.
Some of the desserts seem commercial – among them a hefty chocolate mousse cake. The house crÃ¨me caramel with espresso is more like cold pudding with a shot of weak NescafÃ©. Other than a brown sludge like colour to the syrup, I could detect no coffee flavour. Better the Italian standby – ye old tiramisu.
Fiamma’s wine list offers thoughtful tasting notes, suggested food pairings, decent choice by the glass, and bottles to fit every budget.